Building Cathedrals for Future Generations

The public and disaster philanthropists are slowly beginning to acknowledge the fact that we are experiencing more natural disasters and they are increasing in intensity. This past week I attended the 2013 Humanitarian Action Summit at Harvard University to learn more about climate change and its impact on disaster relief. In attendance was an interesting mix of thinkers, academicians, and practitioners.
The scientists were admirably cautious about not making any pronouncements. They need more data. One of them quoted Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s excellent advice: “”Those who have knowledge do not predict. Those who predict do not have knowledge.”
Although scientists may not have the data to support why temperatures are increasing, they know that weather patterns are changing. As they pore over a variety of data sources and theoretical models they are most comfortable talking in terms of trends and probabilities. Our discussions brought no “aha” moment that helped give disaster responders a clear pathway for future action. But it did leave us with a better sense of what to expect.
Here’s the bottom line: Climate change alters the probability of occurrence. The climate of the next decade will be influenced more by historical annual and decade variability than by any single dramatic new influence of change in climate. However there are regions where the trends induced by climate control will have a notable impact. Those “one hundred year” storms will likely occur more often. Wet areas will get wetter and dry areas will get drier. The extremes will be more extreme and marginal areas are will get worse. The frequency and intensity of hurricanes floods increasing and droughts will rise.
Climate change will also impact food security, which will become worse in countries already suffering from food insecurity. Food inequalities will increase. This will also mean that the cost of agriculture inputs may rise – items such as water, land, energy fertilizer, and improved seeds. In other words, for those of us engaged in disaster philanthropy, climate change is a threat multiplier. So what can we do about it? There are three approaches the scientists recommended we consider to address increased natural disasters caused by climate change:

  • Mitigate or reduce our carbon emissions which affect climate change over the long term;
  • Adapt or manage the impact of more storms to prepare and prevent disasters; or
  • Suffer the consequences and respond to disasters after they hit.

Nations are likely to do all three in the coming years. Climate change, the scientists made clear, is a long-term game.  Any changes we make today in our collective behavior – either positive or negative – won’t show up for 30 to 50 years.
Do we have the ability in our society to make changes that won’t become apparent for decades to come? What will be the incentive to motivate behavior change? How do we consider the collective benefit of a great expense that only benefits future generations?
Read more in CDP’s Climate Change and Extreme Weather Issues Insights piece.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

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